The First Day of Spring by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

Mammy rose in the morning just as usual during those interminable months. I was accustomed to calling Alexander Alexandrovitch's mother "mammy." She always wore a dark dress and carried a large white handkerchief which she continually raised to her lips. It was bright and cheerful in the dining-room. The tea-service stood on the table and the samovar was boiling. The room always made me feel that we were going away—into the country, for all the pictures had been taken down, and a mirror that had been casually hung on the walls was now shrouded in a linen sheet. I generally rise very early, say my prayers, and immediately look at the newspapers. Formerly I scarcely even thought of them and was quite indifferent to their contents; now I cannot even imagine life without them! By the time my morning cup of tea is brought, I have already read all the news of the world, and I tell it to Mammy, who cannot read the papers herself.

She has the room Alexander Alexandrovitch formerly occupied; she is tall, always dresses in black, and there is a certain severity about her general demeanour. This is quite natural. She invariably makes the sign of the Cross over me, kisses me on the forehead and lips, and then—as ever—turns quickly away, bringing her handkerchief to her lips. I know, though, what it is that distresses her—it is that Georgie is killed, and Alexander Alexandrovitch is still "Out there" . . . and that I, Anna, alone am left to her of her family.

We are always silent at tea: we generally are at all times. She asks only a single question:

"What is in the newspapers?"

She always utters it in a hoarse voice, and very excitedly and clumsily I tell her all I know. After breakfast I walk about outside the window looking at the old factory and awaiting the postman's arrival.

Thus I pass my days one by one, watching for the post, for the newspapers, enduring the mother's grief—and my own. And whenever I wait for the letters, I recall a little episode of the War told me by a wounded subaltern at an evacuated point. He had sustained a slight head wound, and I am certain he was not normal, but was suffering from shell-shock. Dark-eyed, swarthy, he was lying on a stretcher and wearing a white bandage. I offered him tea, but he would not take it; pushing aside the mug and gripping my hand he said:

"Do you know what war is? Don't laugh! bayonets … do you understand?"—his voice rose in a shriek—"… into bayonets … that is, to cut, to kill, to slaughter one another—men! They turned the machine-guns on us, and this is what happened: the private Kuzmin and I were together, when suddenly two bullets struck him. He fell, and, losing all sense of distinction, forgetting that I was his officer, he stretched out his arms towards me in a sort of half-conscious way, and cried: 'Towny, bayonet me!' You understand? 'Towny, bayonet me!' But you cannot understand…. Do not laugh!"

He told me this, now whispering, now shrieking. He told me that I could not understand; but I can . . . "Towny, bayonet me!" Those words express all the terror of war for me—Georgie's death, Alexander's wound, the mother's grief; all, all that the War has brought: they express it with such force that my temples ache with an almost physical sense of anguish,

"Towny, bayonet me!" How simple, how superhuman!

I remember those words every day, especially when in the hall waiting for the post. Alexander writes seldom and his letters are very dry, merely telling me that he is well, that either there are no dangers or that they have passed; he writes to us all at the same time, to mother, to Asya, and to me.

It was like that to-day. I was waiting for the postman. He came and brought several letters, one of them from Alexander. I did not open it at once, but waited for Mother.

This is what he wrote:

"Darling Anna,

Yesterday and to-day (a Censor's erasure) I feel depressed and think of you, only of you. When things are quiet and there is little doing many a fine thing passes unobserved; I allude to the flowers, of which I am sending you specimens. They grow quite close to the trench, but it is difficult and dangerous to get them, as one may easily be killed. I have seen such flowers before, but am ignorant of their name."

"Goodbye. My love. Forgive the 'army style'; this letter is for you alone."

The letter contained two of those little blue violets which spring up directly the snow has melted.

I handed the letter, as always, to his mother that she might read it too; her lips began to tremble, and her eyes filled with tears as she read, but in the midst of her tears she laughed. And we both of us, I the young woman, and Mammy the old mother, laughed and cried simultaneously, tightly clasped in each other's arms. I had pictured the War hitherto in the words: "Towny, bayonet me!". And now Alexander had sent me from it—violets! Two violets that are still unfaded.

I had noticed before the phenomenon of the four seasons suddenly bursting, as it were, upon the human consciousness. I remember that happening to me in my childhood when on holiday in the country. The summer was still in full swing, everything seemed just as usual, when suddenly one morning, in a most ordinary gust of wind, the red-vine leaves, then some three weeks old, were blown into my eyes, and all at once I realized that it was autumn. My mood changed on the instant, and I prepared to go home, back to town.

How many years is it since I have seen the autumn, winter, or spring— since I felt their magic? But to-day, after a long-past summer, I have all at once felt the call of the spring. Only to-day I have noticed that our windows are tightly closed, that I am wearing a dark costume, that it is already May, and that bluebells are blossoming in the fields. I had forgotten that I was young. I remembered it to-day.

And I know further that I have faith, that I have love—love of Georgie and Alexander. I know too, although there is so much terror, so much that is foolish and ugly, there is still youth, love, and the spring—and the blue violets that grow by the trenches.

After Mammy and I had wept and laughed in each other's embrace, I went out alone into the fields beyond the factory—to love, to think, to dream . . . I love Alexander Alexandrovitch for ever and ever…